The bewitching world of Swan Lake

  • Published 15.10.17
Matsak as Odile, the black swan, has Prince Siegfried (principal dancer Jan Vana) playing right into her hands with her masterful subterfuge
Principal dancer Natalia Matsak as Odette, the white swan, in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake by the Royal Russian Ballet of Ukraine. The show was brought to Delhi by Navrasa Duende, a venture of Energo Group that intends ‘to converge arts and entertainment’

The obsession with swans began a long time ago for me… long before Natalie Portman shot Odette and Odile to fame among non-ballet enthusiasts as the delirious Black Swan. Tchaikovsky’s original score followed a simple plot of a romance with fantastical impediments — the lady is a swan but true love can reverse the curse. But what if the well-meaning prince is misled into courting the wrong swan? There are multiple ways in which this story could end and when the Royal Russian Ballet of Ukraine came to Delhi, I had to see how they’d end their story.

For me, it was always about the Little Swans. Violin classes formed a regular part of my childhood weeks and that meant developing an ear for the crescendo and decrescendo of Western classical music. Tchaikovsky always did sound like one of those congenial chaps, with none of Mozart’s overt romanticism or Wagner’s fierceness. I’m not sure when the Dance of the Little Swans seared itself into my brain as the epitome of all that is beautiful and graceful, perhaps during the Swan Lake performance in Calcutta in 2000 by The Bavarian State Ballet, even though I remember little of it other than beautiful white figures bathed in blue, shimmering across the stage.

Years later, after having abandoned my violin but not my fascination for ballet, armed with knowledge of the art derived from movies ranging from Billy Elliot and Center Stage to the animated Ballerina and, of course, Black Swan, I lined up outside Siri Fort Auditorium in Delhi on September 22, in an unusually Calcuttaesque downpour. It was surreal, even in the absence of a live orchestra. If you’ve ever had a penchant for fairy tales, the Swan Lake ballet is the closest you will ever come to seeing one unfold before your eyes. Between acts you find yourself marvelling at the years of forbearance and dedication that has led to a suppleness of human form that even fashion magazines can’t begin to replicate.

Act One belonged to the court jester, in this case played by Andrii Gavryshkiv in a red and black unitard, stealing the show with nimble footwork that only just spilled over into the absurd with minimum comic exaggerations!

Act Two belonged to the swans, their whole lamentation, and there is much to lament in this scene, seeing that these lovely birds are lovelier women when the sun sets. In this act, the Little Swans didn’t fall short of my expectations of them, their legs moving in perfect synchrony to this sprightly bit of music, its fame secondary only to the music that has become synonymous with the ballet and which is first heard at the end of the first act to accompany the Flight of the Swans.

Act Three. Prince Siegfried makes the unpardonable mistake of failing to distinguish between his birdie love and her evil imposter. The act belongs to the guests who come to pay their respects to the queen, each dance different from the last in both costume and style. But Odile sweeps in and steals the show with her mesmerising pirouettes, which earned her a mid-act applause. Oh Evil, why art thou so desirable?

Act Four. Prince Siegfried bounds away to make amends but the sorcerer Von Rothbart isn’t going to just let him break the curse and cast aside his own daughter, the black swan. It’s a battle to the end, but which end? The one where the principals die while the other swans live? The one where Rothbart dies and the lovers live? The one where everyone dies? A whole new end?

It was to be a happy end, for Rothbart dies and the lovers are united, as humans, albeit the rare kind who retain their swan-like grace. It’s a happily-ever-after if you like that sort of thing. Personally, I’m all for some realism and trouble in paradise, but I’ll admit there’s a time and place for everything and Swan Lake is best concluded joyously.

— Ramona Sen